from Isobel Goodman, intern (2017) Rare Books, Bodleian Libraries Special Collections
The Cheney archive documents the history of Cheney & Sons, an independent family printing firm based in Banbury. The firm was in operation from 1767 to 2001, working primarily as jobbing printers but also printing some books. The archive, acquired by the Bodleian Library in 2010, includes 17 volumes of printed ephemera, books, and manuscript material, and demonstrates both the longevity of the company and their adaptability through over two centuries of politics, wars and changing technology.
The company was begun in 1767 by John Cheney, the innkeeper of the Unicorn Inn in Banbury. From there it passed through various generations of Cheney until it finally closed down some 234 years later. A particularly interesting aspect of the firm’s history is during the period 1821 to 1854, when Esther Cheney, the wife of the founder’s son, Thomas, was the head of the company. A letter sent out by her to clients informing them of this change of leadership is within the archive, as well as another one from when Esther handed control to her son in 1854.
Several items within the archive thus bear the imprint E. Cheney, and according to the Cheney’s own history, Esther was a formidable woman of renown in Banbury. Apparently the people of Banbury used to frighten naughty children by threatening to call in Mrs. Cheney! Her position is interesting as she was clearly acting as head of the company in her own right, an action that was not necessarily the norm at the time. For more detail on the history of the firm, Cheney and Sons printed their own history, which is also part of the archive.
The archive sheds light on the print trade across over two centuries. The Cheneys produced several specimen books containing numerous examples of their work, showcasing the variety of commissions that the Cheney family could undertake, as well as demonstrating the types, colours, materials, and finishes that they could offer. Specimen books like these were, and remain today, a very practical way of showing potential clients the services offered by a company.
But Cheney & Sons took every opportunity to demonstrate their printing skill, for instance the archive contains several promotional calendars which were given as gifts to clients at the end of the year. These calendars not only showcase the artistic skill of the printing firm, but also allow us to see changing tastes in artwork through the years. They also show that maintaining client loyalty and goodwill was an important part of running the business, and the further examples within the archive of these kinds of tokens of thanks (SDC11230) printed by Cheney & Sons for other businesses, suggest that business-client relationships were much more personal in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It is interesting to discover, through the archive material, the different ways in which print was utilised through the late 18th to 21st centuries, and the insight these materials can give us into social history of the time.
The Cheney archive affords a wealth of examples of printed documents relating to entertainment. There are numerous notices for concerts and plays , as well as a dance card to the Banbury ball of December 1897 , listing the dances and with room for a lady to write in a partner for each. Also, there is a poster printed by Potts and a newspaper article by Cheney detailing the celebrations planned for the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation, showing how, in a time before television allowed live viewing of the actual event in London, the people of Banbury (and presumably other towns too) enjoyed coronation day: with dancing, sports, and an ‘immense fire balloon’!
Another lovely example of Cheney & Co’s involvement in local entertainment is a book printed in 1907 to commemorate the Oxford Pageant. The pageant was organised to raise funds for the Radcliffe Infirmary and the Oxford Eye Hospital, and involved the people of Oxford dressing up in historical dress and re-enacting the history of Oxford. My personal highlights are the Vikings landing, Queen Elizabeth and her court being photographed school-photograph style, and a recreation of the St. Scholastica’s Day ‘Town and Gown’ riots!
Several volumes of the archive are full of printed ephemera related to politics, further demonstrating the Cheney’s connection with the general public. Some are open letters from MPs at election time. Others record contemporary reaction to political changes, for example some notices refer to the change to a secret ballot in 1872, instructing voters how to cast their vote properly. However, some are perhaps even more relevant to the present day: vicious tirades against fellow MPs , and satires describing the election as a horse-race, with a notice of betting on the contestants, and a summary after the ‘race’. . These satires were published by various different printers in Banbury and the surrounding area, and so the archive demonstrates a wide range of political affiliations, showing elections from several different perspectives. It is interesting to see how, in a world without social media, politics could be equally as cut-throat, and printed ephemera clearly played a very important role in this.
Fashion is another particular strength of the Cheney archive. Several catalogues and pamphlets for different shops can be found, including one for Elliston and Cavell Ltd., the shop that used to be situated at 7-12 Magdalen Street, Oxford, where Debenhams is now. The catalogues offer insight not only into trends for men, women and children, but also into how the fashion trade operated in the 20th century.
Outside of examples of work printed by Cheney and Sons, one manuscript letter
written to ‘Mr Cheney Guild-der’ describes quite a curious commission received by the Cheney firm. Richard Barton asks Cheney to ‘put’ images of angels, Jesus and a small child on two clarinets. The letter is not very professionally written, as the writer starts over three times and runs out of space at the bottom of the page. He also states that he doesn’t want to ask the usual man, because he’s always drunk! This seems quite a strange request to make of a printer – but serves to show another side of the Cheney firm, which was gilding.
The archive does not just include work by the Cheney firm, though. It also includes the work of other local printers, including J.G. Rusher, who printed a large number of chapbooks in the early nineteenth century. These are small, paper-covered booklets relating children’s stories, folk tales, ballads, poems and riddles, often accompanied by illustrations. Chapbooks were a medium of popular literature in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and the large number of them printed in Banbury by Rusher, Cheney, and other local printers sheds light on the history of production and distribution of such popular literature. Many of the chapbooks relate well-known stories such as Jack the giant killer , Dick Whittington , Cinderella, and Jack and Jill , to name but a few.
The range within the Cheney archive material is very broad, as such a lengthy timeframe is likely to afford. Some of the archive material relates to World War II, including notices relating to the blackout and air raids. One notice includes a watermark for ‘Cheney and Sons, Banbury’ . It is clear that the longevity of the Cheney firm stems not only from printing commercially viable popular material, but also from their ability to adapt and change their work to suit current events and extraordinary circumstances.
The archive thus demonstrates the breadth of the uses of print through the late 18th to 21st centuries, and the real integration of a printing firm into every aspect of a community’s life. As we move increasingly further away from a world of print and into a digital age, it is fascinating to see how crucial print has been right up to recent history, and to track some of these changes through one family and printing firm.
 Cheney d.2 (4)
 Cheney d.2 (12)
 Cheney 144 and Cheney 161
 Cheney 159
 Cheney c.6/2; Cheney c.9
 Cheney c.20
 Cheney albums 15
 Cheney d.2 (9)
 Cheney b.4 (1)
 Cheney c.9
 Cheney a.5 (51)
 Cheney a.1 (2)
 Cheney c.10
 Cheney a.3 (5) and Cheney a.4 (34)
 Cheney a.1 (13) and Cheney a.3 (60)
 Cheney a.4 (47) and Cheney a.4 (44)
 Cheney c.17
 MS. Cheney d.1 (1)
 Cheney 29
 Cheney 38
 Cheney 18
 Cheney 22
 Cheney c.23
1 thought on “The Cheney Archive at the Bodleian Libraries”
Hi, I’m very interested in this article for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, I own a local print company just outside of Banbury & remember Cheneys as a print company up until its collapse in 2001.
Secondly, because I purchased a safe from the Cheney asset auction sale and got the surprise of my life when we got the safe back to our workshop & realised it was full of historical paperwork, similar to what you describe in your article. Most importantly I have the original Apprenticeship papers for Mr Cheney.
I have had these items stored safely for the past 21yrs but feel it time they were seen & recorded as of historical importance.
If this is of interest to somebody I can be contacted at KMS Litho Ltd – 01608 737640 or email@example.com